Aleisha's Fund awards first student scholarships

Bahamian summer research program exposes students to 'real science'

For first time this year, Oceanside to join Camden Hills students
By Sarah E. Reynolds | Jun 07, 2013
Courtesy of: Ken Vencile Camden Hills Regional High School student Rebecca Gray, left, holds a turtle with CEI researcher Sarah Bernstein during the 2012 Cape Eleuthera Institute summer program.

“I like to push myself,” said Camden Hills Regional High School biology teacher Ken Vencile, who has taught at Camden Hills for eight years – and the same might be said for his students. He currently teaches mostly honors and AP courses. And he doesn’t take the whole summer off, either.

For the past three summers, he has taken groups of 12 Camden Hills students to the Cape Eleuthera Institute — CEI — in the Bahamas for 10 days in August to study marine biology. This year’s trip will run from Aug. 4 to Aug. 14. While he suggests topics and specifies learning goals for the program, the projects are actually designed by the research scientists working there, mostly graduate students working toward master’s and doctoral degrees, he said.

In fact, the program was created specifically for Camden Hills with Vencile’s participation. He had attended a teacher conference at the Island School, with which CEI is associated, in the summer of 2009, and was exposed to the school’s philosophy of “place-based learning” — that students should be immersed in the local environment as much as possible. Excited about his experience, Vencile wanted to take a group of students to the Island School the following summer, but at the time it only had a semester program for high school students. At his request, an academic summer program was developed that allows students to create and carry out research projects on their own, with advice from CEI’s researchers. (Initially, the program was run by the Island School, Vencile said, but it is now run by CEI.)

The 12 Camden Hills students will be broken into three groups of four, each working on a separate research project. For example, Vencile, explained, one of the groups will study how the swimming ability of bonefish is affected by water temperature. They will read research papers during the summer before they go to the Bahamas, and will come up with their own research methodology after they arrive, which they will present to the researchers on-site. In addition, students must learn to recognize the 50 most common reef fish, Vencile said.

“When they catch these fish in a net, I don’t want them saying, ‘What’s that?’” he said.

After three or four days of fieldwork, the students will again sit down with the CEI researchers to analyze the data they have collected. Since they will have such a short time in the field, Vencile explained, they will pool their findings with the Institute’s database.

Finally, they will make a presentation of their work to the researchers and their peers. There are aspects of the work these students do, Vencile said, that he was not exposed to until he was in graduate school.

Beyond the academic requirements, Vencile said, the program is physically demanding. “The work is exhausting, grinding,” and physical conditioning is part of the daily regimen, he said. To do well in the program, students must be enthusiastic, flexible and collaborative, he added.

One thing he appreciates about the program is the way that students rise to its challenges, taking responsibility for their own, and each other’s, learning.

In an email, he added, “there was a big carryover upon return. … [The students] put up a bulletin board in the hallway to share images of their experience. Most of them signed up for AP Science classes upon return. They all bragged and bragged about their experiences — most of them used the experience as the focus of their college essays. Most of them are heading off to college to do something in the sciences. Formal evaluations of the program, that included parents as well, spoke of how this was life- changing.”

One indication of how much the Camden Hills students were affected by attending the CEI program is the fact that they have asked Chris Maxey, founder of the Island School and Cape Eleuthera Foundation, to be their graduation speaker. Vencile said Maxey “connects with kids instantaneously,” winning their cooperation as he pushes them to work harder. Interestingly, this will be Maxey’s first high school graduation address, according to Vencile.

This summer, for the first time, six students from Oceanside High School in Rockland, led by biology teacher John Hagin, will join the Camden Hills students at CEI. The Oceanside students will have their own research project studying the abundance and diversity of life in the coral reefs, Hagin said, but will travel, eat and bunk with their peers from Camden Hills.

Hagin, who has spent 14 years in the classroom and taught with Vencile when both of them were at Georges Valley High School, was a chaperone on the first student trip to the Bahamas that Vencile led in 2010. He said he enjoyed seeing the students on that trip challenging themselves: they “embraced all obstacles,” he said, of being in a hot, buggy, remote place and having to rely on each other to accomplish the work they had been assigned.

While SAD 28, according to Vencile, pays half of the $2,200 cost of the program for Camden Hills students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, RSU 13 offers no subsidy for Oceanside students. And Hagin noted that the tuition is “a major expense,” for his students.

He said the Rockland students have been raising money for some months, sending out a fundraising letter as well as having car washes and a dance and dessert event.

So it was welcome that an Oceanside student, junior Jebadiah Fontaine of Rockland, was selected as the first student to receive a scholarship from Aleisha’s Fund, set up in memory of Aleisha Sonksen, a Camden Hills student who was killed in a local traffic accident two years ago. Sonksen died just a few weeks before she was supposed to take part in the CEI program. The fund was established to subsidize half the cost of this program for students at Oceanside and Camden Hills, and occasionally to help send teachers to the Island School's teacher program.

The fund is administered by United Mid-Coast Charities, said Lucinda Ziesing, the mother of a Camden Hills alumnus who also attended the Island School. Ziesing has been active in raising money both for the CEI summer program and for Aleisha's Fund. She said Aleisha's Fund scholarships are awarded on the basis of both need and merit, and recipients are selected by UMMC and a member of Aleisha Sonksen's family.

As this story was being written, the fund made available a scholarship for a Camden Hills student. Vencile noted that students who want to apply "need to think about how they're going to give back to the community" upon their return from the program.

Both Hagin and Vencile anticipated benefits from having students from two Midcoast schools on the trip. Vencile said he hopes there will be camaraderie and bonding among the two groups. Hagin added that he thinks it will be good for students from Oceanside and Camden Hills “to see one another on an even playing field,” and learn that they have more in common than they might think.

Like Vencile, Hagin was enthusiastic about the fact that the CEI program exposes students to “real science,” and when they present their results “they’re presenting in front of real scientists with real data.” Besides building students’ confidence that they can undertake scientific work, it teaches them that “they are capable of doing anything they put their minds to,” he said.

Vencile said in order to build the program’s base of support in the Midcoast, it is important to get more teachers involved. To that end, last year Aleisha’s Fund paid for three teachers — one of whom was Hagin — to attend the Island School’s teacher program. In this way, Vencile will not have sole responsibility for the program, and should he move on, the program can continue.

“I didn’t want to hog something that’s really neat,” said Vencile.

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